Drive-By Truckers
Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro
Saturday, Jan. 31, 2015

A few songs into the Drive-By Truckers’ sold-out show at Cat’s Cradle Saturday, a fan exhorted the band to “Bring the heat!” Though well intentioned, it wasn’t necessary: From the moment they hit the stage, it was clear that the Truckers were bringing plenty of energy. Some folks later theorized that the band simply loves playing at the Cradle, and that may be the case. Whatever the reason, they gave the kind of passionate, gritty, high-energy show for which they’ve earned their reputation.

The one time I’d seen them perform was at the second Hopscotch Music Festival in 2011. Unbeknownst to me, it was a beleaguered period for the band, which had nearly run itself into the ground. I was a new convert to their music and was fully prepared to be slain that day, but I was let down. The bass was barely audible (it might have been a result of the mix), and the songs lacked the snap and snarl of the original recordings. Part of it was seeing them during the day in a cavernous, half-filled plaza, when clearly they belong in a dark room, surrounded by a crowd of enthusiasts while taking between-song swings from long bottles.

As the Truckers burn through tales of hard living, job loss, heavy drinking and other forms of American despair, there’s a hell of a lot of uplift. The opening song, “Puttin’ People on the Moon,” contains the line, “Seems everyone I know is gettin’ cancer every year.” Still, it made for a rousing beginning.

The contrasting sensibilities of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are the engine that drives this Athens, Georgia band. Hood is the more garrulous character, and he was in fine form, beaming wickedly at his bandmates, giving his vocal all even when singing backup, offering a fist bump to rhythm guitarist Jay Gonzalez while jamming on his knees, slamming out chords with sweat flying from his brow during “The Righteous Path.” Mike Cooley is more like the Man in Black, intense and intensely watchable. His tar-deep baritone contrasts perfectly with Hood’s scorched tenor, and where Hood’s songs resemble short stories in miniature, Cooley’s lines have the terseness of aphorisms.

The set mixed new material with perennial live favorites and some rarely played numbers like the mournful “Sandwiches for the Road,” a tribute to famed session player Eddie Hinton. To preface “Box of Spiders,” a song from an early record, Hood told a story about his Gran Gran and her husband, known as the General, whose last words were “It’s hotter than hell in here.” He’s been introducing it this way for some time, but the story went on longer than it typically does in Carrboro. That’s part of the glory of the Drive-By Truckers: They remain a work in progress.

For the encore, Cooley, who had let his baritone and Telecaster do the talking up to that point, stepped to the mic and said, “Always hated ‘Glory Days,’ then I went to a funeral and changed my mind.’” He then strapped on an acoustic guitar and played the brisk but bleak “First Air of Autumn,” from English Oceans. Not to be outdone, Hood followed with a decidedly Springsteen-ian spoken introduction to “Let There Be Rock.” While the part about how rock ‘n’ roll saved his life as a teenager might have come from The Boss, the detail about his daughter owning a mono copy of Pet Sounds was pure Patterson.

Then they did a Van Halen cover. And out-Stones-d the Stones on “Shut Up and Get on the Plane.” They finished with “Grand Canyon,” a tribute to a fallen comrade that reverberated long after most of the exhausted players had left the stage. To borrow a phrase from the sporting world—appropriate, since it was Super Bowl Eve—the Truckers left it all on the field.